Addressing Ways to Effectively Rehabilitate and Provide Care for Children Refugees

By Samhar Almomani, WFCF Blog Guest Author on Mar 8, 2022

The United Nations announced last year that there are more children than ever before currently living as migrants or refugees, outside of their birth countries. According to reporting by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are 35.5 million girls and boys living outside of their country of birth and an additional 23.3 million who are displaced internally. Over the course of one year, there are almost 15 million new displacements or 41,000 each day, and that boy refugees outnumber girls.

This last fact is important because gender plays an integral role in a child’s decision to escape their current home and shapes their experiences as migrants. “Gender skews certain migration routes and experiences,” Verena Knaus, UNICEF’s Global Lead for Migration and Displacement, “nine in ten unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe were boys.” More than half those boys were coming from Afghanistan, Morocco, and Syria. Ms. Knaus noted that Afghanistan was the top country on the list of countries of origin for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe. The gender imbalance is an important aspect, as Ms. Knaus pointed out saying, “Where are the Afghan girls? Where and how can Afghan girls seek international protection, today and in the future?”

Risks during migration also play a big role in a child’s decision to leave home. Girls outnumber boys by four to three as victims of trafficking, and boys are more often trafficked for forced labor. The report continues to show the gender gap in child migrants, highlighting that girls are more likely to be out of school than boys in humanitarian settings. “In camp settings, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys,” said Ms. Knaus.

The UNICEF report calls for governments to address “blind spots” by investing in gender-specific data and using that data to bring coordinated solutions to the child refugee crisis. The report also urges throwing away the one-size-fits-all approach and prioritizing solutions based on gender-specific risks. In fact, the report urges us to move past merely being gender-responsive but also becoming gender-transformative to address the deeply ingrained inequalities between girls and boys in the context of global protection and the vast migratory opportunities offered to children.

To understand the refugee crisis, we need to take a look at the countries these children migrate from. Although Afghanistan is the country with the largest number of migrating child refugees, Syria also has a sizable chunk of the total global number. Together, these two countries account for nearly half of the children refugees in the world. The refugee crisis in Syria first began in 2011, but with the civil war growing more violent, the crisis has only been exacerbated. Although the resulting migration is detrimental to everyone, children stand the most to lose from such tragic upheavals. The detrimental results of these displacements are going to be seen in future decades. That is why it is important to start increasing efforts of rehabilitation and reintegration for migrant children into new communities as to mitigate the effects of violence and traumatic conflict. Such interventions cannot be expected to happen on a local governmental level but, for it to work, needs to be done by the entire international community. Comprehending the seriousness of the task at hand requires us to explore the tangible effects of displacement on children, based on a paper written by Megan Anderson, who is the managing editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

The first of these effects are the neurological challenges that plague refugee children. This is mostly caused by the dramatic effects stress has on the brain and growing up amid a civil war, which leads to being forced to move into a different country, usually without your family, is an extremely stressful experience. Cortisol, which is a hormone released in times of stress, is supposed to be released in short bursts. However, in the stressful lives of refugee children, cortisol is frequently released, and the hormone has negative consequences on the development of major parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, the region that is critical to both learning and memory. Therefore, constant levels of cortisol released due to stress will result in impairments in learning, memory, and regulating the body’s stress response. Recent research in animals suggests that stress is not limited to a single generation but can be passed down from parent to offspring. This means that the neurological effects of stress on refugee children may be passed down to their own children later in life. These findings are significant and frightening. Millions of children are born in places of conflict and end up migrating in search of a safer home. It is likely that the most stressful aspect of a refugee child’s life is the uncertainty of their future. Suggesting that the detrimental neurological effects of stress can be passed down to those refugees’ children have long-term implications that are tragic.

The second major effect that migration has on refugee children is their poor access to education. Access to meaningful education is undoubtedly compromised in regions where there is conflict, forcing mass migrations of children. For example, in 2011, Syria reported universal enrollment in both primary school and in lower secondary school. In August 2019, after years of conflict, over 2 million children (⅓ of Syria’s child population) are out of school, with a risk of a further 1.3 million children dropping out too. These problems are not always resolved by simple migration. In host countries for refugees, 800,000 children remain out of school.

There are a few reasons as to why children refugees remain unenrolled and continue to risk dropping out if they are enrolled in school. For example, refugees that live in rural areas outside of refugee camps, access to schools is very limited. Children also cannot make the journey because they do not have a reliable form of transportation. Even if after moving into a new country, they get access to education, it is different for children to learn about a new country’s curriculum after migrating. Often, the new curriculum is in a new language, so refugee children are expected to learn a new language about all the ongoing stress in their lives to begin their education. Another important struggle that migrant refugees face in classrooms is the discrimination and harassment they face from their classmates.

Sometimes previous traumatic experiences in schools lead refugee children to avoid going back to school. For example, since 2014, the United Nations has reported over 385 attacks on education facilities and excessive military use of over 50 schools. This means that thousands of children had undergone some form of traumatic experience in their schools, on top of the stress of living in the midst of a civil war. Such experiences mean that many children will struggle to go back to school unless they are integrated in the right way.

The third struggle children may encounter as refugees is the many mental health challenges that come with migration and escaping civil conflict. In addition to the aforementioned, refugee children face complex mental health challenges. This is due to the stress experienced in all stages of migration. In the pre-migratory stage, refugee children have often experienced immense physical and emotional trauma due to the violence they have witnessed in their home countries. This is in addition to the stress caused by lack of access to basic necessities, such as food and clean water. Also, refugee children are likely to have already missed years of school, disrupting their regular childhood development and decreasing their likelihood of becoming successful adults.

During the process of migration, children are often separated from their families, while also having to endure harsh living conditions, severe violence, and inadequate nutrition. After going through all those hardships, refugee children often face more hurdles in the post-migration period. During this time, refugee children are expected to adapt and acculturate rapidly to begin their education and continue their lives.

Due to all these reasons, refugee children are at a significant risk of developing severe mental illnesses. The most notable illnesses that these children struggle with are PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other complex emotional and behavioral issues that result in disrupted sleep, inattentiveness, and social withdrawal. This is of global concern because studies have shown that children who feel as outcasts and are vulnerable are at an increased risk of becoming radicalized. When refugee children are exposed to traumatic events, they can feel an immense level of stress and anger. When these children are not provided with the adequate psychosocial resources to deal with their mental disorders, their feelings about injustice may brew and result in the child’s radicalization.

With that being said, effective rehabilitation and reintegration can be used to mitigate the struggles these children face. There are several researched methods that alleviate mental health issues in refugee children. One of those methods involves normalizing a routine in the child’s life. This can take myriad forms, but the most effective one is enrolling more children in schools so that they naturally fall into a routine. Also, schools provide children with a predictable environment, and that helps in easing them out of their stressors that they have previously experienced.

One novel intervention for refugee children’s reintegration into society is the “Welcome Sesame” method. This is made up of a mixture of community, family, and individual intervention and has been created by Sesame Workshop partnering with the International Rescue Committee. The purpose of this partnership is to deliver educational content through a television show titled “Welcome Sesame” to about 8 million refugee children. The program will also include in-person services like home visits and learning centers to bring early educational learning methods to around 1 million refugee children who have been affected by the Syria conflict and currently reside in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan. This show is different from other educational shows because it is not focused on educating children about subjects like letters and numbers but focuses on emotions like fear, anger, and isolation. The opening season of the show focused on “emotional ABCs” and showing children some practical self-regulation and calming techniques, such as belly breathing and counting to five. This was done to help kids identify and manage their feelings. The show aired in twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa in February 2020.

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The final struggle identified in the paper are the many legal challenges that refugee children face. Despite universal commitments to the Convention on the Rights of Children created by the UN, many countries do not live up to the expectations set by the global body, especially when it comes to implementing certain guidelines in domestic immigration and legal systems. A lot of countries face economic shortcomings if they were to apply all the guidelines mentioned in the Convention on the Rights of Children, so they end up ignoring these recommendations.

Looking ahead, we have the resources at hand to mitigate the challenges faced by refugee children. Better collection of data will undoubtedly help make decisions about children refugees and what is best for them, but in the meantime, we have the resources to provide help. Increasing spending will have paramount effects in the long run when it comes to improving the children’s rehabilitation into society. One suggestion would be to increase the number of Syrian teachers in refugee host countries, in order to help refugee children adapt to their new environments. However, many nations do not allow Syrian teachers to take up these jobs, thus taking that chance away from children. Another suggestion mentioned in the research paper would be to include Syrian curriculums in some learning centers to help with Syrian refugees' re-enrollment into school.

More resources should also be provided for nontraditional educational methods, such as the Welcome Sesame show. Initiatives looking into hybrid, modern ways to distribute educational material should be explored, since they will have positive effects for refugee children’s mental health in the long-term. This will also speed up the region’s recovery after the civil war and ease the transition into a new generation of leaders and rebuilders. World Forgotten Children Foundation’s mission has always been concerned with the wellbeing of children around the world. You can also make a difference, and aid vulnerable children who desperately need help.

Sources:

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http://djilp.org/refugee-children-the-challenges-they-face-and-the-efforts-to-overcome-them/

https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1098612

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